by Abby King
March 7, 2015 – September 28, 2015
First floor of the Perelman Building at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Walking into Shelley Spector’s exhibition, I simultaneously experienced a feeling of familiarity along with whimsical strangeness, like seeing an old photograph through a neon filter. Keep the Home Fires Burning is filled with uncanny connective threads, from literal woven t-shirt fabric to loose themes of universal hope and familial stories. In her artist’s statement, Spector writes, “I uncovered many connections — such as my family’s, Philadelphia’s, and the Museum’s history in the textile industry; the details from the personal and professional life of Frances Lichten with my own[.]” Spector’s symbolism is a mashup of cultures with references to Americana, Pennsylvania German, and Judaism, mixed in with the imaginary. The elements are often immediately recognizable, like upside-down chairs in totem pieces like A Hundred Years, or a deck of cards sliced to create feathers in My Own Nest. It is the unexpected coalescing of the artist’s personal and public influences that makes Keep the Home Fires Burning a refreshing whirlwind of ideas and images.
Spector’s exploration of materiality plays out in large-scale and intimate artworks in one open space that feels a bit like someone’s living room. The work casts aside the cold institutional tone of museums, and replaces it with a playful vibe that radiates with color. A soundtrack curated with ethnomusicologist Dan Singer fills the gallery with local and international music, setting a mellow mood, with artists such ranging from Explosions In the Sky to Whitney Houston. (I recommend checking out this eclectic soundtrack on Spotify.) By giving the exhibition a musical backdrop, Spector creates an initial connective sound blanket that lays over the space. It gives the immediate impression that the work is supposed to be experienced through a layering of the senses.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is the sizable sculptural installation From Seeds to Seeds, a suspended garden of five individual radial flowers and leaves. The circular carpet positioned below the dangling vegetation encourages viewers to lay down and take in the rings of fabric comprising this upside down flower-filled view. Each of the hanging fiber sculptures takes its shape from what seems to be pieces of papasan chairs, forming upside down nest like sculptures filled with dizzying circles of torn t-shirt fabric. Boldly chandelier-like, they invite museum goers to physically reorient themselves to take in a new landscape rather than hang statically from above.
Adjacent to the fiber canopy is a piece with a similar interactive element on a different scale. The titular sculpture, Keep the Home Fires Burning, is a tiny well composed of a wooden log sitting perfectly centered on a wood grain cookie. Viewers are encouraged to drop a coin down the well and make a wish. Elements with this type of fanciful feeling normally make me uneasy; in less seasoned hands they could come off as “twee” or even kitschy, but the craft and sincerity present in the show dispel these reactions.
Spector is a Philadelphia native, and her mixed media pieces have been showcased in many venues across the city. For Keep the Home Fires Burning, her first solo museum exhibition, she was invited to show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art by curator Dilys Blum. According to the Museum’s website Spector took advantage of her exclusive access to the museum’s extensive textile collection, drawing direct inspiration from a large embroidery piece (appropriately) entitled Embroidery. Spector’s work echoes the symbols found in this 1940s textile piece, such as birds and flowers, but she also was inspired by the collaboration cited at the bottom of the fabric. It reads, “Designed by Frances Lichten and sewn by Her Mother aged 82.” Keep The Home Fires Burning also features a mother-daughter collaboration; Spector and her mother collected thrift store clothes and furniture for several years, and the many artworks on display are the culmination of the labor intensive work of taking apart and reconfiguring their found wares. Spector also takes inspiration from Lichten’s long-term relationship with artist Katherine Milhous. According to the museum’s website, Spector followed the historical bedcrumbs of their forty year relationship and although it is not written explicitly that they were a couple, Spector takes this leap and tells the story of their love in a piece entitled Frances Loves Katherine. This sculpture depicts two toy-like figures perched in front of a house balanced on an upside down wooden fence. Carved into the side of the house is a cordial message, “give sunshine to others.” It is as if the artist is pretending to be the historian, researching and digging into the past history of these two women and taking a departure from “the truth” when necessary.
Despite the intriguing tale of Lichten and Milhouse I was most drawn to the mixed media piece Village which seems the least illustrative of the Embroidery starting point. Village consists of a green fabric vine descending from the ceiling surrounded by pincushion tomatoes, plump and waiting at the bottom of a plant. The found fabric sculpture seems to hail from an ambiguous fairytale. This piece invited me not to just think about where the materials had been before, but also about the space they inhabit currently. While other works in the show feel like a period at the end of an artistic sentence, Village seems like the starting point of a story. Its as if the snake like vine falling from the ceiling continues upward to another cloud-filled world. After further research I learned that only some of the tomatoes were made by Spector, and that the piece is an ever evolving collaboration. In five separate workshops she taught museum goers how to make their own recycled fabric vegetables that would be added to the low pedestal. Village embraces the “it takes a village” sentiment amusingly literally. This piece also continues in the main building of the PMA; several Tomato Interventions occur in different period rooms, a harkening to the Victorian habit of placing tomatoes on the mantel as good fortune to new homeowners, according to Spector.
My only wish for this exhibition is that there were more of these outside interventions that seem to combine multiple stories, spaces, and time-periods. Some of the sculptures seem too comfortable in the cozy world Spector has made for them. Contradictorily, it is the subtle conversations between the individual pieces that creates worthwhile moments. The repeating details of wood and woven fabric carry stories of where they have been, grains and stitches that connect across cultures and time periods. Spector smartly uses these elements to not just revisit overlooked objects but to create new moments of connection.
Abby King is a mixed-media artist and educator based in Philadelphia.